Marriage Therapy: Saving or Hurting Marriages?

Relationship Design

therapyI’ve heard it said that couples counseling can be highly stressful, highly volatile, and potentially explosive. It has been likened to assembling an airplane while in flight.
As a marriage therapist, I agree.
Marriage therapy can be daunting, both for the therapist and the couple.
So when you reach a time in your relationship where help is needed, you need a skilled technician.
Truth is that many therapists are not trained to navigate the turbulence of marital distress – when this happens therapy can do more harm than good.

A Brief History

The field of marriage therapy started in 1950s when people began to view marital problems in a systematic way. Society at the time (traditional gender roles, reluctance to have women in the workforce) viewed divorce as a personal failing. In fact, a woman was viewed as a divorcee the rest of her life. Divorce was also seen as a failure by therapists.
So, what we do in our country is swing from one kind of model to another (or one extreme to the other). When the 60s and 70s arrived, we entered the culture of individualism – marriage based not on duty or commitment, but on personal happiness. The divorce rate skyrocketed, the no-fault divorce laws were passed in the early 70s and we experienced the cultural revolution in which we were liberating individuals from the traditional structures of conventional morality.
The 80s and early 90s saw the influx of a consumeristic mentality. As people “broke free” from the burdens of tradition and structure they became primarily consumers of the latest and greatest must have item. And this mindset invaded the family and marriage in a big way.
The late 90s and 2000s saw the trend move beyond consumerism into a world of entitlement.
We moved from the 70s “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” to an era today of “you deserve better.”
As if the world, life, relationships and love owes you something.
You deserve the lifestyle you’ve always wanted. You deserve a better job. You deserve a better life. You deserve to be happy. You deserve … You deserve …
Marriage, and family life, has been strongly influenced by this lethal combination of individual fulfillment, consumerism, and entitlement.
Traditional marriage vows have changed from “as long as we both shall live” to “as long as we both shall love.” It seems as though people are beginning to “lease” a marriage rather than seeing it as a lifelong journey.
In one generation, we’ve moved from being citizens – to consumers – to entitled consumers. And consumers, not to mention entitled consumers, are inherently disloyal.
There was, and is, less loyalty, in all spheres of life, than just 30 or 40 years ago. Employers are less loyal to their employees, employees are less loyal to their employers. People are less loyal to their particular church or faith community. Citizens are less loyal to their country. Spouses are less loyal to each other. And even children are less loyal to their parents (i.e. the high schooler her sued her parents for her tuition).

What Happens When Things Hit The Fan?

Marital therapy can be an invaluable resource to help you navigate the rough times. Unfortunately, many therapists are not trained to step out of the “who’s to blame” dynamic. This is the fallback view of therapists accustomed to treating individuals.
Unlike traditional individual therapy, the most effective couples therapy does not seek to identify psychopathologies that are causing destructive behaviors or try to delve into the unconscious or past for cathartic insight. Rather, couples therapy works best when you focus on the systemic interactions and dynamics naturally found in the relationship.
This is treating the system, not the symptoms.
Bill Doherty, director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota, has been writing about bad couples therapy for years. He advocates against two different types of couples therapy: the “values-neutral” approach that treats marriage and divorce as equally viable options, and the “me”-oriented perspective that views relationships as platforms for people to be happy.
This is not to say people should stay miserable, but there is a lot of research that shows the pursuit of happiness is self-defeating.

“Happiness is a byproduct of a life well-lived — of good relationships, of making a difference in the world,” ~ Bill Doherty

I’ll be the first to say that not all marriages can, or should, be salvaged – BUT IT IS NOT THE COUNSELOR’S ROLE TO DECIDE.
Read the part in all caps again.
Both spouses should be able to tell early on if the therapy is helpful. Each spouse should feel the therapist is actively structuring the sessions for the relationship system, not one spouse or the other.
When done right, about 70% of couples therapy cases show positive change. When done wrong, it makes things worse.
Specifically, going alone to individual counseling for marital problems increases the chances of divorce. This is because you have only one side of the story being presented to an empathetic therapist. It easily becomes a gripe session about how unhappy the client is in the marriage and the absent spouse looks even more uncaring, distracted, disinterested or worse – thus exacerbating the couple’s polarization.
To be clear, I’m not saying it is never appropriate to seek individual therapy for relationship problems. If you see that your depression or commitment issues or addictions are causing marital discord, then working on your contribution to the struggles will help. But when relationship issues are the primary struggle, couples therapy is the best route to go.
Seek a qualified marriage therapist. Ask your therapist on the phone or in the first session the following kinds of questions (taken from Bill Doherty):

  • “Can you describe your background and training in marital therapy?” If the therapist is self-taught or workshop-trained, and can’t point to a significant education in this work, then consider going elsewhere.
  • “What is your attitude toward salvaging a troubled marriage versus helping couples break up?” If the therapist says he or she is “neutral,” or “I don’t try to save marriage, I try to help people” look elsewhere. (I’d also run if the therapist says he or she does not believe in divorce.)
  • “What is your approach when one partner is seriously considering ending the marriage and the other wants to save it?” If the therapist responds by focusing only on helping each person clarify their personal feelings and decisions, consider looking elsewhere.
  • “What percentage of your practice is marital therapy?” Avoid therapists who mostly do individual therapy.
  • “Of the couples you treat, what percentage would you say work out enough of their problems to stay married with a reasonable amount of satisfaction with the relationship.” “What percentage break up while they are seeing you?” “What percentage do not improve?” “What do you think makes the differences in these results?” If someone says 100% stay together, I would be concerned, and if they say that staying together is not a measure of success for them, I’d be concerned.

As a society, I believe we need to move to a better balance between individual satisfaction and moral commitment. Towards the creation of new opportunities for people to learn how to have lifelong, successful marriages.
That is the goal of Simple Marriage.
That should be the goal of your therapist. They should be the last one to give up on your relationship, not the first.

(photo source)